Physical Symptoms

How to Calm Nervous & Upset Stomach When Anxious

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated November 25th, 2020

How to Calm Nervous & Upset Stomach When Anxious

Those who deal with upset stomach from anxiety will likely tell you this is one of their most impairing symptoms. It comes at inopportune moments, it is uncomfortable, and it has a tendency to make you feel sick in a way that is incredibly distracting and impair your day-to-day activities.

Stomach upset is one of the reasons that anxiety can be hard to differentiate from many common illnesses or indigestion, as the upset stomach may feel similar to these types of conditions. Only a doctor can rule out illness so it is important to seek guidance from your physician before assuming your stomach problems are due to anxiety. But if they are from anxiety, there are ways that you can reduce it. 

Anxiety and Focusing on Stomach Discomfort

Because anxiety can lead to stomach upset, those suffering from regular and persistent anxiety often find that their stomach is constantly bothering them. They may feel they need to always be near a bathroom, or they may have a difficult time eating or feeling comfortable during activities. 

Yet it's not just because your stomach is upset. Anxiety causes the mind to focus on the issues that are bothering you the most, and so when your stomach is bothering you because of anxiety, anxiety will cause that effect to be amplified. 

Types of Stomach Upset From Anxiety

Anxiety and the stomach are linked in a variety of ways, and these links also cause your upset stomach to be experienced in different ways. You may find that you have:

  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea
  • Gurgling in your stomach
  • Heartburn
  • Diarrhea
  • Feeling of needing to go to the bathroom

In some cases, your stomach may simply feel "off," without a clear way to describe the experience. You simply know that something feels wrong. You may also experience severe stomach tension, which may also give your stomach a feeling of being ill.

What Causes Anxiety Related Upset Stomach?

Scientists have many different theories about why anxiety causes an upset stomach. One of the key beliefs is that anxiety causes changes in neurotransmitter function, particularly serotonin. There are serotonin (and other neurotransmitter) receptors in the gut, and so when your body is experiencing anxiety, it's likely receiving chemicals that tell it to respond with that upset feeling.

Other causes include:

  • Adrenaline Body Changes Adrenaline works with cortisol, the stress hormone, to allow the body to respond to danger quickly. These hormones may change the general physiological traits of the gut. Further, the ratio of good versus bad bacteria in the GI system may be altered by these hormones. 
  • Slowed Digestion Anxiety activates the fight or flight system. Studies have shown that the speed of digestion decreases as a result of the fight or flight system, and this may cause discomfort in the stomach and intestines as a result. 
  • Stomach Tension Anxiety also puts a great deal of pressure on the stomach muscles, and these, in turn, put pressure on the stomach. Any stomach pressure has the potential to change the way that your stomach feels during periods of stress.

The way stress affects your body is so unique to each individual that it can be hard to track exactly what it's doing to any given person. It may be that anxiety changes the way your body processes nutrients, leading to stomach upset. It may also be that when your immune system is weak from stress, germs that are present in your stomach bother your immune system more.

All of these are potential issues that lead to problems with your stomach during periods of stress.

How to Control Your Anxiety Upset Stomach

Stomach upset can really put a damper on your ability to live a happy life. Ideally, you'll need to treat your anxiety to experience a calmer stomach.

Even though anxiety is causing your stomach to feel sick, many of the symptoms can be reduced with various medications. You should always consult with a doctor before taking medication and do not want to rely on medication to “cure” your upset stomach. However, many people have had success with basic medications that calm the stomach. Common examples include:

  • Tums
  • Pepto-Bismol
  • Rolaids

Eating healthier can also help. Remember that your anxiety is affecting your gut, but it's not causing the symptoms all on its own. What's in your stomach has an effect on the severity of the symptoms as well. Eating healthier - especially on days you expect to experience anxiety - can be very helpful. Drinking water may also be useful since water is gentle on the stomach.

You may also try distracting yourself. While your upset stomach may be severe, anxiety causes a tendency to focus on the experience, which causes further anxiety and exacerbates the severity of the stomach pain. A positive distraction, like a funny TV show, can actually make a big difference in the way you experience your upset stomach.

Finally, you'll need to prevent your anxiety so that you don't experience frequent gastrointestinal distress. You can do this through therapy, medication, self-help, meditation, sports, and more - all of which are highly effective at decreasing anxiety when completed correctly. Once your anxiety decreases, your stomach upset should decrease with it in both frequency and severity.

Questions? Comments?

Do you have a specific question that this article didn’t answered? Send us a message and we’ll answer it for you!

Ask Doctor a Question

Question:

Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient

Answer:

You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

Ask Doctor a Question

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